Review: Starlight Express – Cliffs Pavilion, Southend On Sea

It can’t be often that a small child has a West End musical dedicated to them. It’s even rarer when that child ends up writing a new song for the show’s revival a couple of decades later.

When your surname, though, is Lloyd Webber such things shouldn’t come as too much of a surprise. As Andrew’s 1984 railroad musical Starlight Express takes to the road again, son Alastair has penned a new pivotal love duet for the score.

Let’s rewind though – Starlight original opened as one of the 80s mega musicals, a show you came out of humming the set as well as the score. The Apollo Victoria was transformed by designer John Napier into a giant skate park with actors hurtling round the auditorium just inches away from the audience.

A touring production can’t, of course carry out a major rebuild of every venue it visits but this poses a problem for Starlight Express. Without the full-on spectacle the plot is woefully exposed and here the plot of the show is paper thin. An (unseen) child is staging races with his train set, as competing trains battle, literally in many cases, to become the world champion. What normally sustains interest is the spectacle, the sight of a cast performing daring routines on roller skates while belting out Lloyd Webbers rock/disco infused score. Without that spectacle it’s all a bit lacklustre. Twenty-eight years on and Napier has had to scale back his original designs to the bare minimum. It’s left to Nick Riching’s rock concert inspired lighting to lift the piece but without a set to light it often seems a bit barren.

On the confines of a traditional proscenium stage, the skating effects are limited to a couple of ramps and, even while those are well-executed, they seem somewhat cramped. Sightlines from the front stalls also detract, with the high stage rendering much of the skating footwork invisible.

There are clever technical touches though. Without the engineering in place to stage the required races, audiences are handed 3D safety goggle to watch filmed excerpts. It’s a well-staged workaround and shows some genuine thrills but it also serves to remind viewers of what could have been.

There are still moments to enjoy, however. Lloyd Webber’s score is arguably his most tongue-in-cheek, parodying a whole gamut of musical styles from rock to country. Richard Stilgoe’s lyrics provide another level of wry humour but, sadly, the weak diction from the ensemble and a poor sound mix renders much of those lyrics incomprehensible. Arlene Phillips’ direction is oddly static and, apart from a couple of large scale set pieces, never really takes off.

In the lead role of steam train Rusty, Kristofer Harding impresses. Harding’s rendition of the title track a highlight of the evening. Rusty’s love interest, Pearl, is also well sung by a sweet voiced Amanda Coutts, although their love duet by Lloyd Webber Jnr is perhaps a weak replacement for the original number, sounding more like a Eurovision entry than a strong piece of musical theatre.

Originally written for The Public Reviews

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